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At NBAA’s Convention, NTSB Member Encourages Business Operators to Adopt SMS

ORLANDO, FL, October 8, 2008 – National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Member Robert Sumwalt told Attendees at NBAA’s annual "Safety Town Hall Meeting" that operators should consider adopting a safety management system (SMS).

Addressing those in attendance at the meeting, Sumwalt, a former airline pilot and flight department manager, said he believes that a systematic approach to safety will help improve business aviation’s already good safety record.

Any SMS should include four elements, said Sumwalt: written policies; procedures and guidelines; data collection activities; risk management; and development of a safety culture. Basically, "You should write down the way you want to operate, and then do it that way," he explained. Citing several recent business aviation accidents, Sumwalt noted that problems arise when existing safety procedures are inadequate or they are not followed.

Data collection efforts should include tapping into multiple sources of safety information (audits, incident reporting systems, etc.), said Sumwalt. Having sufficient data leads to informed risk management, he added.

Simply stated, risk management is an effort to increase the chance of success or reduce the possibilities of failure. Too often, people accept risk blindly, Sumwalt asserted, so flight departments should quantify risks and put controls in place to mitigate them. He offered the example of making it a policy not to fly into an airport without a precision approach and an operating control tower at night.

The final step in any SMS is to create a safety culture. Sumwalt said you know you have one when "employees do the right thing, even when no one is watching. A safety culture is triggered at the top and measured at the bottom." If leaders lead by example, then workers will follow, he asserted.

Roger Baker, a safety consultant who formerly was the Federal Aviation Administration’s former national safety manager, provided some additional insights on how to set up an SMS. He suggested that aviation managers should decide what to do when flight department employees deviate from safety standards. He suggested that managers should consider getting input from employees by asking them: "What are you going to do to enhance safety?" In the final analysis, however, a manager has the responsibility to remove ambiguity and the right to prescribe how an employee does his job.

Sumwalt, Baker and other Safety Town Hall participants offered additional suggestions. When an aircraft accident occurs, one flight department sends, within 24 hours, a one-page briefing based on preliminary information to answer the inevitable question: "Could this happen to us?"

Another best practice is to have aviation department employees involved in a mission complete a post-flight checklist to note anything unusual with a flight.

Finally, to make an incident reporting system work well, employees need to be guaranteed that the system will treat them fairly. A non-reprisal policy signed by the CEO and aviation manager will provide some assurance. Typically, the number of reports submitted is low at first, but once participants see that issues will be addressed, they are more inclined to participate.

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